Is semantics formal?
In this paper I will be concerned with the question of the extent to which semantics can be thought of as a purely formal exercise, which we can engage in in a way that is neutral with respect to how our formal system is to be interpreted. I will be arguing, to the contrary, that the features of the formal systems which we use to do semantics are closely linked, in several different ways, to the interpretation that we give to those formal systems. The occasion for this question, and the main example that I will use to illustrate my answer to it, is the close relationship between the formal systems employed in recent statements of apparently competing accounts of epistemic modals with the dynamic, expressivist, and relativist theoretical paradigms. The structure of the paper will be straightforward. In part 1, I will briefly introduce four theories of epistemic modals – one dynamic theory, two expressivist theories, and one relativist theory. Then in part 2 I’ll show that one expressivist theory is formally equivalent to the dynamic theory, that the other is formally equivalent to the relativist theory, and that the two expressivist theories are themselves essentially notational variants. I’ll use these facts to pose our central question: if these theories have so much formally in common, then doesn’t that suggest that we can separate the task of constructing a formal semantics from the task of deciding between competing interpretations of it? Finally, in part 3 I’ll answer that question in the negative. There are at least three reasons why formal semantics cannot be separated from questions of interpretation that are illustrated by the theories I introduce in part 1